I saw Billy Budd (1951) at the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in the fall of 2004, and recently rented the Netflix DVD of a 1988 BBC performance with the English National Opera conducted by David Atherton, distributed by Image. Billy Budd is played by Thomas Allen, Captain Vere by Philip Langridge, and Claggart by Richard Van Allan.
The story derives from a novella by Herman Melville; the libretto was written by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier.
The story is well known. To put if briefly, Billy Budd, a handsome and good-hearted chap who stutters, is impressed on by the British Navy (onto the Bellipotent) from a merchant ship during the war with France in 1797 (slightly before the time of “Master and Commander”). The crew likes him, but Master-of-Arms Claggart grows suspicious and “accuses” him of plotting mutiny. In an ensuing confrontation in Captain Vere’s shipboard office, Budd “accidentally” kills Claggart and must be put to death, to the great lament of the crew. The novella plot is longer and has more wrinkles.
But it is the meaning of the story that is controversial. On one level, it is even compared to the Passion. Billy is seen as a Christ figure, Claggart as Satan or as Judas, and Vere as Pilate.
But in the modern world, the story has some indeed controversial interpretations. Impressment was a controversial practice that helped lead to the War of 1812. In European history, mutiny was also a major issue for navies (the film “Mutiny on the Bounty”). But in more modern terms it reminds us of the issue of military conscription. The closed all male environment of the British Navy ship presents unit cohesion problems well known to the sociology of the modern military. It’s easy to imagine Billy’s “stuttering” as a symbol for homosexuality, and Claggart’s accusations as the equivalent of a witch-hunt (as under today’s “don’t ask don’t tell”). At one point, Budd stutters when ordered “Defend yourself!” and then he strikes Claggart. (In the language of my own boyhood, he “hits back.”) Britten, who was homosexual and who died in 1976, still might have privately imagined the inevitable social changes that in a couple of generations would make this a real issue. On a more general level, Budd represents a non-conformist who represents an existential threat to the established order and therefore is a convenient mark for being framed. As much as we love to represent this concept in literature and art, it is hard to deal with in real life.
The music is linear, modal and sinewy, the brass sometimes imitating the effects of a shipboard band. The choral harmonic effects in the “All Hands Down” near the end are startling (and that music was used in the French film “Beau Travail” (dir. Clair Dennis), where the setting is Djibouti with the French Foreign Legion. The very ending, where Billy is lowered to the sea, reminds one of late Mahler (“Das Lied von der Erde”) or even the hushed close of the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony.
I say, perform this again in Washington, and let SLDN make it an occasion for a gigantic fundraiser if Marty Meehan’s bill to lift DADT makes real progress.